In the short span of thirty years the sport of steelheading has changed markedly. The most dramatic change has been in the execution of the sport itself. When it comes to wild steelhead, steelheading has changed from a blood sport to a bloodless sport.
Three decades ago, anglers who pursued steelhead with a fly rod were a small subset of all steelheaders. In the second decade of the 21st century fly fishing for steelhead with a fly is in the ascendancy and its practitioners are in the majority. In the 1970s and 1980s only a handful of flyfishing steelheaders used a two handed rod – now it’s rare to see a steelheader without one.
Last steelhead season I made more trips up the Zymoetz River than I normally do, carrying a counter and doing more counting than fishing to get and rough ready assessment of the angling pressure under the recent changes flowing from the Quality Waters Process. On weekends, my counts averaged 50 anglers per day. On weekdays, when the river was open to anyone with a fishing license and a steelhead stamp, the daily counts averaged about a dozen more than that. Of the hundreds of steelhead anglers I observed, only one, excluding myself, was brandishing a single handed pole.
When it comes to reels, a few of us still arm our fly rods with old winches made by the House of Hardy. They are good machines, aesthetically pleasing and mechanically sound, these Perfects, St. Johns, St. Georges, and the Salmon series, but our fidelity to them is more nostalgic than practical.
I own a dozen old Hardy reels and three modern reels, two made under the Grays imprimatur and one manufactured for Fenwick. These last three, all assembled in Asia, carry modern lines more comfortably on their wide drums, have a smoother drag than any old reel with which I’ve fished, and, because of their light weight, are better matched with contemporary carbon fibre rods. Other than being too quiet for old ears when fighting fish, these new fangled cranks are superior to their predecessors.
Modern steelheaders have vastly improved wading equipment at their disposal too.
When I began attempting to entice steelhead to a fly, I wore rubber waders built for use in the Eastern mines with rubber treads that resembled those used on deck boots that had no belt around their waist. Years later we moved to neoprene waders whose use the renowned steelhead guide, Steve Perih, accurately characterized as akin to fishing in a sleeping bag. In comparison, today’s steelheader wears light, breathable, belted waders with neoprene feet that slip into all manner of felted and studded, hard toed footwear.
In earlier columns in this series, I alluded to the primitive lines of yore. Now, thanks to Jim Vincent, John Hazel, and their countrymen, and to the innovative Brits at AirFlo, the array of easily cast speciality fly lines is almost bewildering. So much so, in fact, that the variety of lines is tending to make the sport too technical and unnecessarily complicated.
As is the case with reels and lines, two handed steelhead rods are vastly superior to the old poles in terms of practicality and cost. One of the big breakthroughs is that long rods have become shorter. This is a good thing insofar as ease of landing a steelhead or salmon is inversely proportionate to rod length. (Try landing a 15 pound steelhead with a 15 foot rod without dragging it up on the beach to test this assertion.) The appearance of switch rods eleven feet in length, and a host of shorter Spey rods of 12 and 13 feet is a significant step forward in this regard.
My first shorter double hander was an 11 foot sage. The $700 price tag was a bit of a jolt, but picking it off Randy Murray’s rod rack and giving it a wiggle was all it took to bring me to the realization that here was the ideal rod for fishing summer steelhead with small nymphs and even dry flies, yet capable of turning over heavier irons on sinking heads in the dead of winter.
Not knowing any better, I put a Rio Versitip 8 weight fly line intended for a single handed rod on an old Hardy St. John and bolted it to the reel seat of my new short long rod. This setup was fine until I cast a Scandinavian line on Jimmy LaTie’s 11 foot rod over the Ostrich Run at Cedarvale. Here was a line that cast well at short distances yet was capable of blasting a fly out 90 feet with ease when the occasion demanded.
With YouTube and Google, superbly designed Spey rods, custom lines for all situations, breathing raincoats, light weight waders, and boots that stick to slippery rocks like Velcro, catching a steelhead on a fly rod has never been easier. The challenge has been diminished, but, as Rod Haig-Brown pointed out a long time ago, when the challenge is diminished, the sport is too.
Rob Brown’s column will return the week after next.